Many schools in Maine are replacing traditional punitive discipline approaches with more restorative models that focus on repairing harm done to relationships.
They’re doing so in response to findings that traditional methods like suspensions and expulsions do not improve student behavior or make schools safer. Studies have shown that students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to become involved in criminal activity, do worse in school, and drop out of school than their peers who have not been suspended or expelled.
Unlike suspensions and expulsions, restorative practices involve positive and authentic dialogue that brings together the offending student and members of the school community to jointly solve a problem. In a restorative circle, teachers and students come to a responsive and responsible understanding of the circumstances that brought them together, thereby reestablishing relationships and deepening a sense of empathy.
While restorative programs may be in the early stages, the results so far are promising. Studies have found that restorative approaches can improve school climate, correct misbehavior and increase academic motivation.
One of the most serious, scientific examinations of restorative practices in schools is currently underway in Maine.
The five-year randomized controlled study, launched in 2013 by the RAND Corporation with the National Institute of Child Health and Development and the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast, aims to assess the impact of restorative practices on youth development. The study involves 14 Maine middle schools: seven that are implementing restorative practices and seven that are not.
Paula McHugh, the principal of Ridgeview Community School in Dexter, is one of the seven schools being studied. She said in an email that since her school began implementing these practices, it’s decreased the number of suspension days by 60 percent, to 39 days of suspension, and reduced the number of student incidents involving suspension by 23 percent.
Schools outside of the RAND study are seeing results, too. In 2015, David Crandall, the principal of Indian Township School in Washington County had his staff shift to this more positive approach because so many of his students have undergone traumatic experiences or faced neglect.
As he said in an email, “We needed an approach that can heal our students.” He said that restorative practices so far seems to be meeting that need.
“Our school community has improved with two-way respectful relationships growing and developing,” he said. “We are better than we were a year ago, and we continue to improve.”
Restorative practices are not a silver bullet. They don’t solve all issues, but they do ameliorate harm and teach accountability. They may be our best bet at showing troubled students that we care.
Cheryl Robertson is a restorative practitioner and trainer with the Restorative School Practices Collaborative of Maine. She’s been involved in education for more than 25 years, and holds a doctorate in at-risk education and school administration from the University of Maine.